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Rewriting the Book on Cool

An interview with author Ned Vizzini shows us how to Be More Chill

By Jess Liese

Ned Vizzini is cooler than you.

Actually, you wouldn't know it from meeting him. He's an affable, approachable, average guy who derives dorky glee from old-school Nintendo, rock trivia, and obscure Star Wars references. Nothing about meeting Ned in person would suggest the presence of greatness - unusual intelligence and depth, and a caustic sense of humor, to be sure. You'd never suspect, though, that you were hanging out with a literary powerhouse. But at 23, Ned is already a veteran of the New York City literary world, with two books under his belt, a third in the works, and a name that's gaining notoriety as one of the nuclei of the up and coming reading scene.

Ned's first novel, Be More Chill, was released in June by Miramax Books. In short, the book is about a 15-year old loser who takes a pill that makes him cool. The pill, called a "squip," instructs the novel's protagonist in the ways of being popular, catapulting him from perpetual loserhood into the upper echelons of coolness.

More than that, Ned says, Be More Chill is "a 21st Century fable." The implied moral? "Be yourself, and don't pay money for things that suck. It's a really freeing statement, when you think about it."

On its way to the inevitable lesson, the book provides a surprisingly frank look at teenage debauchery, and a hilarious, unconventional (and at times painfully resonant) deconstruction of the high school social pecking order. The book contains a degree of refreshing honesty not often present in young adult fiction. "You need to be real when you're dealing with teenagers," he says. "They are very good at sniffing out dishonesty."

It's possible that Ned is so able to relate to his largely teenage audience because it wasn't so long ago that he was one of them. Ned was 14 when his first column appeared in the New York Press. Over the course of his high school years, he regularly contributed essays about such teenage rites of passage. In 1999, Free Spirit Publishing released Teen Angst? Naaah..., a memoir partially culled from Ned's New York Press columns.

The essays collected in Teen Angst explored topics from prom dates to family vacations and catapulted Ned into minor teenage cult hero status. He is a regular featured guest at "New York is Book Country" and speaks at junior high and high schools across the country. Ned also spends hours each week responding to the hundreds of emails and message board posts that arrive via his website (http://www.nedvizzini.com/), and relishes his role as a guru to what he jokingly refers to the "loving contingent of dorks and rejects" who turn to him for writing advice as well as general guidance through the tribulations of adolescence.

"Sure, I wanted to go out and write serious, groundbreaking world-shaking literature," he says, "but then after (Teen Angst, which is now in its 9th printing, I found a tremendous reward working with young people. They're more honest. They have no ulterior motives. There's also this tremendous sense of potential that you have when you are a teenager. By working in this arena I'm in touch with that potential every day.

"These kids don't have any role models for success other than athletes and musicians…they think that people who write books are untouchable figures - and then I show up. I'm very touchable. Tactile to the max."

He certainly hasn't ruled out the idea of writing serious fiction with more adult themes, though, and anticipates that his next novel will likely appeal to a more grown-up audience. And in the meantime, he is reaching out to anybody and everybody with a love for the written word. One of the most earnestly self-promoting writers in New York City, Ned always has a side project or event in the works. Chief among these is a reading series at Barbes, in Park Slope (http://www.barbesbrooklyn.com/) which he's recently begun curating.

"The reading scene is something that I got into really this year," he says. "I feel very strongly that it's something really special. As we go forward and as our media gets more and more flashy, the idea of actually sitting and hearing someone tell a story takes on an appeal you can't get anywhere else. One of the most simple things to do is sit around and tell stories."

In a very short time, Ned has become a popular figure on the New York reading scene through guest spots at the East Side Oral series at the Living Room and the WYSIWYG series at P.S. 122, among others. A reading series in Park Slope, Ned's home neighborhood (he has lived in Brooklyn "for a solid, proud, and yet shameful 16 years"), seemed to make sense for many reasons.

But mainly, according to Ned, it made sense because Park Slope has the highest concentration of authors in New York City, and in fact, anywhere in the country outside of Princeton, New Jersey. So when the opportunity to curate a reading series virtually fell into his lap, he eagerly took it on.
The series began in July and takes place every other week. Starting in September, the series will move from Tuesday nights to Thursdays.

While many readings in the city bring writers of similar genres or styles together, there is no rhyme or reason to the roster at Barbes. "I don't like themes. If you like themes, get a cookbook. I like to mix it up. I'm really happy that on August 24th you have Rachel Kramer Bussel reading her lesbian erotica, and Alexia Lewnes is going to read her visceral stories about NYC street kids, and Dave Fabricant is going to read us his comedy and show us his mazes."

Eclecticism, Ned says, is at the heart of his series. "I'm fascinated by what people do. You can't do everything, so hang out with people who do everything."

Of course, it goes without saying that Ned makes a pretty concerted effort to do almost everything himself. In addition to the Barbes series, he is busily preparing for two upcoming events in particular, and the mere mention of either inspires his excitement level to ratchet up a notch or two as he throws in last-minute remembered details at a breakneck pace.

On September 23, at the Brooklyn Brewery, he'll be reading from Be More Chill and introducing a special screening of Donnie Darko. The details of the event are still being worked out, but admission will include open bar and a copy of the novel. "I can't get away from that movie - everyone who mentions my book, they mention that movie. It's because Donnie Darko takes adolescent angst issues to poststructural levels, and my books deal with a lot of the same issues. If you are or ever were a misunderstood young person, you're probably going to like both."

Later that week, on September 28, Ned will join fellow prodigious youngsters Nick Antosca, Marty Beckerman, David Amsden, and Lexy Benaim at "Feed the Young Writer 2004," a reading event he's organizing at P.S. 122. "All of these people are annoyingly young. We want to give them a chance to show that they're actually good. We want to give people a reason not to hate these people."

It's entirely possible not to hate them, but envy may be another story. Be More Chill may not ultimately explain how to be popular, but Ned's position at the center of this new wave of precocious young writers ensures that he's nevertheless rewriting the book on cool.


Classic Brooklyn Books

By Jess Liese

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
by Betty Smith

Could there possibly be a column called "Classic Brooklyn Books" that didn't eventually make mention of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? The title, if not the story, has worked its way into the global subconscious to the point where it's one of the most obvious cultural touchstones as far as this borough is concerned. Even if you've never read the book, and even if you know nothing about it, I'd be willing to bet that you've at least mentally name-checked the title at some point in your life, while noticing a fenced-in sapling on a Park Slope sidewalk or wandering through the Brooklyn Botanical Garden.

I read this book for the first time as a ninth grader, which I imagine is the age at which it's recommended to most people, and I read it for English class, which I imagine is also the context in which most people read it. At times I found it painful to read due to the vivid descriptions of abject poverty and the book's tendency to hit you with one tragedy after another, leaving you thinking, "what could possibly happen to them next?". However, these sudden and repeated rushes of empathy were balanced by the book’s seamless, engaging prose. I finished the book in two days, grabbing a page here and there before marching band or during lunch and crossing my fingers for a happy ending.

As an adult, and particularly as an adult in Brooklyn, the story is very different. The book's tragic elements and underlying message of hope are still there, as poignant and riveting as ever, but ten years after I read it for the first time, I discovered new elements and facets that weren't there for me as a teenager. I find that Betty Smith has a wicked sense of humor and an attention to detail that not all young teenagers can completely grasp. I'm certain, for example, that the anecdote about Francie's Aunt Sissy working in a rubber factory that "made its big profits from…rubber articles which were bought in whispers" went straight over my head when I was a naïve 14-year-old, and I merely accepted and sympathized with Francie's snap judgments about romance and sex rather than giggling at her naiveté.

The difficult relationship between Francie and her mother, the truly appalling way in which Francie's heart is broken near the end of the story, and her struggle to choose between staying in a well-paying but unfulfilling job and pursuing her dreams – everything takes on a new complexity when a reader is looking at them through the lens of life experience.

Through the lens of Brooklyn experience, it's even sharper. I certainly see it more clearly now that I know New York as something more than simply a convenient urban setting for a World War I-era story. Williamsburg today bears little resemblance to the working-class slum of Francie Nolan's childhood, but her story still gained dimension and focus when I could overlay my own mental images of Lorimer or Graham Street. The Brooklynite knows approximately how far Francie and Neely would have walked while traversing Williamsburg in search of the best sour pickles in the Jewish section of the neighborhood. And while the L train has replaced the "el" train, the route to Francie's job in midtown Manhattan is all too familiar. When the novel is read as a Brooklyn book rather than simply another exploration of the journey from girlhood to womanhood, the story becomes more grounded and meaningful, no matter the reader's age or prior experience with Smith's magnum opus.

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